Constructed Realities: Project 2 – The Archive


On her website, Nikki Bird (Bird, 1) describes her project Question for Seller (2004-6, with the final auction of the pictures exhibited in Belfast and the compiled album in 2007) as follows:

Made from family photographs acquired through eBay, Question for Seller features photographs that no one else has bid for. The seller is asked the question: How did you come across the photos and what, if anything, do you know about them? Their replies are as important as the photographs they sell. They allude to disappearing histories, where personal photographs reveal fragments of past lives, through photographic processes that are themselves becoming obsolete.

On the page on the site about the album (Bird, 2) the pictures of spreads from it are accompanied by quoted replies (the answers to the questions to seller):

‘Hey, you’re not in there are you? I bought a large amount of photos at an auction in Newport, Shropshire – part of an estate sale – and put together the kiddies’ photos’ […] ‘I acquired the post cards and cabinet cards from an estate and the carte-de-visites had been given to my great, great, great aunt from her niece as a joke. She travelled quite extensively so it’s really hard to say where they came from.’ […] ‘I got these at an old estate auction. There were pictures from the 1800s to 1940s. I only got a few but one of the family members was a little person (dwarf).‘ […] I buy photographs every week. Bought these in a huge lot of thousands of photos at an auction. Most come from flea markets and estate sales originally. There might be some info on the front or back of some of the pictures. I am not sure since I pulled out of the box a random group of 100+ photos. By the way, what do you do with them?‘ […] No Reply’

– sellers’ ebay replies to Question for Seller, taken from Artist’s website

The quotes suggest a narrative sequence of sorts.

  • There are vast numbers of photographs out there, forgotten in attics, or in shoe boxes under beds.
  • Some of them may even be in physical albums, but most aren’t.
  • Eventually the people who valued them for what they show, die.
  • Their descendants – not knowing what to do with them and lacking the necessary emotional link to the people and places depicted – sell them along with the rest of their dead relatives’ effects.
  • Someone buys the pictures at an auction or in a junk shop
  • They – feeling there must be value there somewhere – try to sell them on, but without much luck.
  • Nicky Bird is the only bidder…

And also, did Bird reply to the person who wondered what she did with them? And if she did, what did she say…

Question for Seller re-situates images in a different context and in so doing allows for a new dialogue to take place. Reflect on the following in your learning log:

C&N Coursebook (p.120)

1: Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?

The picture’s presence in a gallery changes them completely. They have been put into a place – possibly for the first time – where the intention is that they shall be looked at by people who do not have any direct connection to the people pictured. They have ceased to be private images viewed by a narrow circle at home and been moved into the very public world of ‘Art’. People looking at them at the exhibition were freed to make their own links, picture to picture now that they had been freed from their original tethering as “Aunty Doris”, “Will and Evie at the seaside, 1933” etc.

More simply, they are no longer unwanted packages of images failing to find an owner on Ebay. Like Duchamp’s urinal they have been chosen by an artist and placed in a gallery, They have been sprinkled with artistic pixie dust…


2: Where does their meaning derive from?

Their meaning derives from the fact that pretty much everyone will have a box of fading pictures tucked away at home somewhere but, as the people in those pictures become more distant, they fall away from the core remembered family.   The images at the top of this post were pulled pretty much at random from a box of prints I was sent by a cousin, after the death of one of our relatives; the image at the bottom shows their reverse and what is written there; on others there’s a query – ‘Alice?’ – or just a ‘?’. My sister even has an album with a picture of (I think) my Great Great Grandfather, Victorian and posing with a kilt and claymore; there is no way this man can  be related to me, or any of the generations in between the two of us, but there he is. All of our families contain a parade of Larkin’s ‘fools in old-style hats and coats’. We all have people who had that hair style or that hat; who looked over their shoulder like in three quarter face in photographs because they thought it made them look like Cagney or Bogart or Dietrich; who had their picture taken in uniform before they went off to die on the Somme or in Normandy or came back and never spoke about what they’d seen.

They’re pictures that help make up the bit of our collective unconscious set aside for ‘the past’ and ‘family’ and ‘relatives’. Turned into a book or an exhibition (or both) they are recognisable as ‘a family album’ or even ‘someone else’s family album’ which is like ours. They have become fallen trees in abandoned forests where we try hard to imagine the noise of their falling.

We can also identify with the need to look and the desire to ascribe value to pictures like these. Guiltily we think of the uncatalogued pictures in our own attics and wonder what will happen to them when we die…

3: When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’?

Of course! The pictures sold at the gallery presumably went beyond their 99p starting price; the album went for more than two hundred and fifty pounds. The real question is what the buyers did with them then: did they create some mythical relative for themselves rediscovered in a gallery or did they wait a bit and try to sell them on? If they die, will their grandchildren clearing the house recognise the pixie dust or will they just wonder who that was? Will they end up once more as unsold, unbid for pictures at an auction somewhere or will they have certification, a provenance that will stick with them leaving them definitively ‘art’?

I have an Ai Wei Wei sunflower seed, picked up at Tate Modern when they were lying on the floor in great drifts. It’s a lovely thing, but once I’ve died will anybody else know…



Lil was my Great Aunt, Elizabeth Florence Maxton; Gran was her mum, my great grandmother; Alf was my Grandfather; Graham was my father, Alf’s son. I do not know who did the captions on the back, but it isn’t in Rita’s lovely italics.  The pencilled ‘Chirgwin’ on the back of Alf’s picture is in a different hand too; it might be my cousin Malcolm’s, but now he’s dead too. And I have no idea at all, who did the (Pitman’s?) short hand on the back of Lil and Gran…


Nicky Bird:

  1. Main site:
  2. Page describing the album, auctioned on  ebay:
  • Larkin, P (1971) This be the verse (from High Windows (1974) London, Faber)


1 thought on “Constructed Realities: Project 2 – The Archive

  1. Judy Bach

    A really interesting post Simon —I’m way behind with reading other blogs so a bit of a late response. I shall have a further look @ Nicky’s project too.


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